“Every part of the justice system that depends upon public funding and that is particularly reliant on government support is in a parlous state,” said Chair of the Bar Council Sam Townend KC in an opening speech to Bar Conference 2024.

The Chair set out the challenges for the next government in the justice sector and delivered the Bar’s “prescription” as detailed in the eight-point plan of the Bar Council ‘Manifesto for justice’ – calling on the new government, “of whatever political stripe… to do the right thing by the justice system and by the public”.

On the rule of law, Sam expressed concern over recent events and said that the Bar Council’s request “is one that costs nothing, but is highly significant”:

“It is a call for the next government and parliamentarians to uphold the rule of law and to respect the separation of powers in all that they say and the legislation that they bring forwards…

“Just this year we have had legislation that, in one instance, reverses a finding of fact of the Supreme Court, and in another, removes from the Court of Appeal and gives to Parliament and a minister the power to determine the safety of criminal convictions.  These are truly undesirable precedents.

“In one sense worst of all – as Parliament had no involvement – we have had a ministerial statement identifying an intention to appoint 150 more judges for the specific purpose of administering the Rwanda legislation, including stating that those judges are to work weekends and evenings – in effect treating judges like cattle under the direction of the Executive.”

He will warn that “Recent and repeated public attacks on the legal profession, as well as judges, together with threats to basic domestic law rights and international legal obligations undermine trust and confidence in the justice system at home and abroad.  The damage this has on our global reputation, soft power and our ability to influence in the world should not be understated.”

On criminal justice, Sam repeated the Bar Council’s call for a Royal Commission “to remove the issue from the hurly burly of daily politics and the reductive effect on policy thinking of the tired repeat accusation and counter accusation of ‘soft on crime’.

“The intention of such a Commission would be to inject both realism and seriousness into discussions of solutions for the problem, which ultimately will certainly require calm decision making and political courage.” 

On funding for the justice system, Sam called for “investment in all parts of the justice system sufficient to secure a sustainable and resilient system. One that commands public trust and confidence.”

He also challenged the next government to “reverse the tragic evisceration of the early legal advice sector” including Citizens Advice and Law Centres. He said: “The Access to Justice Foundation has identified the multiples of savings to the state purse that easily accessible and trusted early legal advice can bring compared to the cost. Quite apart from financial savings, there is also the misery avoided by members of the public by having their legal or administrative problem identified in good time, and being put on the road to resolution before they end up in court.”

And he called for the scope of legal aid to be widened. He said:

“Over the past 14 years the amount the government spends on legal aid has reduced by 40% per person. This too has contributed to the sclerosis in parts of the justice system, not least in the family courts, where now in just one in five cases are all parties represented. 

“Despite record numbers of sitting days, the backlogs get larger and the waits to trial in child custody and in care cases get longer with the horrendous effects that has on the life chances of children.”

Finally, Sam argued that the eight asks of the Bar Council’s Manifesto for justice are needed to rebuild confidence in the justice system:

“If our prescription is followed, I believe that we can have a justice system that the public can once again have confidence in. One that will ensure public safety. And one that will expand the reach of our legal services abroad, increasing further the value of our exports and the contribution it can make to UK economic growth. A system of justice and rule of law that is again respected and a model for the world.”